A landscape almost as old as time—Povah

Australia’s an old place, so ancient that mountain ranges once as high as the Himalaya have been worn to nubs. At just under 7310 feet, Kosciuszko, the highest mainland peak, is a mere hillock by world standards while on the other, older side of the continent, in Western Australia’s Pilbara where there are rocks almost as old as time, Mt Meharry reaches to a mere 4100 feet, flattened by millennia and slumped under a sun so fierce as to be unimaginable to most folks in the northern hemisphere.

Ancient also is the culture of the people who occupied Australia’s mainland at least 2000 generations give or take before Europeans were even aware of its existence – so long ago that their stories tell of climate change, generations of great cold, long ages of dreadful drought and the disappearance of species. Their folk-beliefs accurately describe the inappropriately named “Hobbits” whose skeletons have been excavated on the Indonesian island of Flores – the Yuurii is just one name for them. The first Tasmanians – once believed to be of a different race – had reached the far south of the continent by about 40,000 years ago, 32,000 years before rising sea levels separated them from relatives on the mainland.

So long have these people inhabited the old brown land that whenever a documentary on the human migration “out of Africa” is shown, their epic history is usually mentioned only briefly, relegated to the too-hard basket. Their still-living philosophy is as wonderful and mystifying as the Universe itself, with a kinship system so complex that a prominent anthropologist once said that any European who claimed to understand it fully was “almost certainly lying”.

Their origins, they say in English, are in the Dreaming, an amalgam of past, present and future governing everything existing in the Universe. Even a rock can represent an ancestor and/or the ancestor in person and/or the result of an action by an ancestor, and so must be sung appropriately to ensure the continued order of the cosmos and everything within it. The people are the country and the country is the people. Failure to sing the country at appropriate times results in chaos: the breakdown of social structure, the disintegration of complex ecosystems, the failure of rains or weather events at inappropriate times. When an Aboriginal laments misfortune brought on by cultural breakdown he will cry “poor fella my country”, for he and his country are one and the same: “poor fella my country; poor bugger me”.

These people are custodians of stone arrangements, earth mounds, bora grounds and artworks so old and with messages so fraught with meaning that they defy the European imagination. In the east are the paintings of giant Kwinkan, carved  trees – many of which were deliberately destroyed by opponents of Land Rights legislation – and giant river red gums that as saplings had limbs bound together so that they would grow into giant circles high in the branches, like openings in the sky, making the base of the trunk a safe and appropriate place for women to give birth. In the west are the awe-inspiring Wandjina, who in the Dreaming established the weather patterns of the north-west then implanted themselves in the rock faces they inhabit today. It has been claimed that their “haloes” represent aliens’ space helmets, explaining why no mouths are to be seen on the figures, but the people whose job it is to sing them disagree. When asked about the absence of mouths, a custodian once replied: “What would they have to say to humans?”

Also in the west is what is now known as the Burrup Peninsula and its 88 sq km of ancient rock engravings or petroglyphs – up to possibly one million of them. Forming Earth’s largest collection of rock art, they are now under threat of almost total destruction by the industry that brought you Ok Tedi, Deepwater Horizon and almost numberless other acts of vandalism large and small. Burrup is the site of huge industrial development including gas hubs to serve the North-West Shelf gas field and other projects, and a fertilizer plant of huge proportions, among other proposals. What survives the construction process – and much has already been destroyed – will almost certainly be hugely affected by acid fall-out from these plants.

Of course the mining industry is not solely to blame. Equally complicit are State and Federal governments and the people who have allowed their elected representatives to transfer power

Australia's "poet lorikeet" and friend, the late Denis Kevans, commented on the state of things in this much loved collection published in 1985

to the miners. So cowed are the miners’ lickspittles that in the year I left Western Australia, siteworks were being permitted at Burrup while yet another “committee of enquiry” was sitting. There are other places for the factories and less intrusive alternatives but why bother when they have governments to do their bidding?

It’s been going on for years, but I’ll stick to the recent past. In the face of huge protests, Amax Iron and CRA drilled on a sacred site at Noonkanbah in 1980 after the State Government provided their rig with a police escort for its 1000-mile plus trip through the outback. The well was dry but that wasn’t the point. They showed they could fly in the face of public opinion, of legislation and of ethical and spiritual values and have the support of government while they did it.

Almost immediately after Shark Bay received World Heritage listing, the miners sought – and got – permission to “explore” for minerals on its very edge. The same at Ningaloo Reef, a whale-shark hotspot and fringing coral reef off the north-west coast. It’s listing for World Heritage has been opposed because local businesses claim it won’t help tourism. Apparently the idea of World Heritage listing should be to enable vested interests to make more money rather than protect natural wonders and great human works. I feel the hot breath of the miners here also. They told us a couple of years ago that they wanted to drill for oil on the edge of the reef and are so clever that they can do so with no ill-effects whatsoever.

Why? To prove their power, that’s why. Mining interests have opposed Aboriginal Land Rights legislation since it was introduced in the 1970s and through its toadies in government continues to have it overridden in some cases and ignored in others. Environmental laws mean nothing to them. Why should they? Governments are only too happy to change them or adopt “temporary suspension” of protection measures to suit their interests

When Native Title was being argued in the courts, a prominent mining company published a map supposedly showing how much of Australia would be closed to miners if Aboriginals were given land title. Some 30 years or so later, John Howard – who with Western Australia’s Court dynasty was among the mining industry’s greatest assets – was brandishing the same map to show us the extent of the “land grab” if he were not to alter legislation that had given the greedy Aboriginals title over some of their traditional lands.

It’s all very well to give the Indigenous peoples title over land we took from them in the first place as long as it’s seen as of no use to us. But if there’s minerals on it it’s a different story and the miners should be allowed to run seismic survey lines all over the place. Who cares if they turn into erosion gullies? It’s only worthless scrub anyway – only good for blackfellers. Unless it’s got minerals in it of course, then it’s a valuable natural resource and the government can’t allow a noisy minority – egged on in past times by Red agitators and now by white Greenies – to act against the best interests of the vast majority of decent, sensible Australians.

And so I return to Murujuga, as Burrup is properly known. Its rape is up there with the destruction of the libraries at Constantinople and Alexandria. When it is gone then there can be an argument mounted to support almost any act of vandalism. Why not put a bulldozer through the Louvre or St Peter’s and replace them with theme parks? Monuments to human endeavor will count as nothing and as for the wonders of nature…what wonders?

Perhaps some day the Wandjina, no longer able to remain silent, will leave the ancient Dreaming sanctuaries to visit a dreadful judgement on the destroyers of the ancient places and bring some sort of peace to the land as old as time. But I fear it’s too late.

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Frank Povah

Frank Povah

Arriving in the USA in late 2008, Frank Povah moved to Stamping Ground, Kentucky in mid 2009. Passionate about the written and spoken word and constantly bewildered by non-verbs and neo-nouns, Frank trained as a typesetter - though he has worked at many things - and later branched out into proofreading, writing and editing. For many years he has been copy editor, consultant and columnist with a prestigious Australian quarterly along with running his own editorial and typesetting business. His other interests are many and include traditional music, especially that of the south, folklore, natural history, and pigeons.